BlackBerry PRIV review: the best Android smartphone of the year

In an industry where progress has come to be measured in annual increments, BlackBerry has leaped in to offer something refreshingly new.

By - February 5, 2016 Share on LinkedIn
BlackBerry PRIV

The scene: you’ve met up with some friends at a restaurant.

Before you sit down, you nonchalantly take your phone out of your pocket and put it on the table.

At first, no one seems to notice anything. Your new phone fits right in with the other 5-inch screens laid out.

Eventually, someone will spot the logo at the top of device, if the unusually-placed front-facing speaker doesn’t catch their eye first.

“BlackBerry? Did you drop your phone in the toilet again, man?”

Yes, it’s a BlackBerry, and it’s the best Android smartphone released in 2015

You might have to endure a few jibes about your smartphone, but when the joking is over what remains is an excellent Android smartphone – arguably the best phone BlackBerry has ever built.

Weighing in at 192g, when you hold the BlackBerry PRIV it feels like you’re holding something substantial, while the rounded edges and textured back creates an air of quality.

This is backed up by a solid set of internals and an excellent screen, as summarised in the table below.

Specifications BlackBerry PRIV
Dimensions 147 (184 opened) x 77.2 x 9.4 mm
Operating system Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
Display 5.4″ QHD (1,440 x 2,560)
Rear camera 18MP
Front camera 2MP
Storage, internal 32GB
Storage, expandable microSD
RAM 3GB
Processor 1.8GHz hexa-core Snapdragon 808
Battery 3,410mAh
SIM type Nano

The Basics

Battery life. Good – lasts more than a day under normal usage. Fast charge. Non-removable battery.

Display. Good – high resolution, responsive, circular polarising filter, good visibility in sunlight.

Storage. 32GB single partition internal, 23.86GB available. MicroSD support for up to 2TB.

Network. All SA 3G & 2G supported. STV100-4 supports Cell C, MTN, and Vodacom’s LTE networks. STV100-3 supports all SA LTE, including Telkom’s TD-LTE network.

Cameras. Excellent rear camera. “Shutter” is a bit slow. Front camera selfies are blurry. No selfie “flash”.

Bundled apps that are actually useful

The stand-out feature of the PRIV is its hardware keyboard – you’ve probably heard a lot about it – so let’s talk about that last.

Something not many people may be aware of is that BlackBerry has brought some amazing software features to Android.

This sets it apart from manufacturers that ship a bunch of irremovable shovelware on their devices that few people will use.

Here is a brief rundown of what you can find on the new BlackBerry Android.

BlackBerry Hub

BlackBerry has ported its notification hub to Android, offering a central repository for all your e-mail, text messages, WhatsApps, BBMs, and notifications from social networks.

It works well, but it can’t act as a complete notification tray replacement.

Only notifications from specific apps are pulled into the hub, leaving users of unsupported apps like Telegram and WeChat in the lurch.

If you don’t like the hub, or if your favourite services aren’t supported, there is nothing compelling you to use it.

Although you can’t uninstall BlackBerry Hub, you can disable notifications from it.

BlackBerry Hub

BlackBerry Hub

Productivity Tab

Linked to the Hub is the Productivity Tab, which lets you swipe the display to “peek” at the latest info from Hub.

It shows upcoming events from your calendar, a task list, and holds your favourite contacts.

While the calendar and contacts are integrated with the usual services and accounts, such as your Google account, BlackBerry’s Tasks and Notes app only synchronises with Microsoft and Novell servers.

This means that to synchronise the task list visible in the Productivity Tab with a cloud service, you will either need a Windows Live Hotmail or Outlook account, or be connected to a Microsoft Exchange or Novell Groupwise server.

You can disable the Productivity Tab, but you can’t uninstall it.

BlackBerry Productivity Tab

BlackBerry Productivity slide-out tab

Pop-up widgets

Another great feature BlackBerry has added to Android is the pop-up widget.

While the home screen widgets are one of the unique features Android has, many of the widgets that apps provide aren’t used.

Looking at my own usage, I typically arrange my main home screen into folders of apps I want easy access to, with my calendar widget taking up 6 or 9 icon slots. Because they take up so much space, I might only have one more widget on a secondary home screen.

With pop-up widgets, you can access an app’s widget with a swipe up or down, giving you a way to see the latest information from the app without opening it.

This is similar to iPhone’s new peek-and-pop feature linked to 3D Touch.

BlackBerry Android popup widgets

BlackBerry Android pop-up widgets

Security features: Picture password

BlackBerry has also baked extra security features into Android.

Two that are visible to users are its picture password screen lock, and the BlackBerry DTEK app.

Picture password solves the problem of unlocking your device while being watched.

Instead of a PIN, pattern, or password, picture password lets you choose a number, and set a location for that number on a picture.

When you unlock your phone, you are presented with a randomised grid of numbers. You then find a copy of your number and drag it around the grid until it is over the secret location you selected.

BlackBerry picture password

BlackBerry picture password

Security features: DTEK

DTEK is BlackBerry’s way of helping users deal with the insecure app ecosystem on Android.

It lets you see which apps are requesting potentially privacy-violating permissions, like access to your camera, contacts, location, microphone, and text messages.

You can see what an app is doing on your system, and decide whether it is misbehaving.

From DTEK, you can then kill the app, uninstall it, or have DTEK notify you every time the app accesses a sensitive area of your device.

BlackBerry DTEK screenshots

BlackBerry DTEK

On Android, fragmentation, and updates

The PRIV doesn’t run Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the latest version of Google’s mobile OS.

However, BlackBerry has promised that it’s working on an update for the PRIV.

It is also proud of the fact that it has not only kept current with the security patch regime Google has for Android, but had a patch out before Google released it for the Nexus.

So, what’s the catch?

The Bottom Line: BlackBerry PRIV
The Good The Bad
  • Bundled BlackBerry apps don’t feel like shovelware.
  • Close to stock Android – very little skinning.
  • Picture passwords and pop-up widgets are great additions.
  • MicroSD support.
  • Hardware keyboard! On Android!
  • BlackBerry apps are still not removable, so technically shovelware.
  • Expensive – priced to compete with the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and iPhone.
  • Non-removable battery.
  • BlackBerry Hub isn’t the notification tray replacement we were hoping for.

No smartphone is perfect, and while the PRIV is a great piece of technology, it is no different.

It’s not a cheap phone, and if MTN’s prices are anything to go by, the PRIV is set to compete with the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and iPhone in SA (MyMTN Choice 100 package – R519 per month).

Considering you’re not getting an octa-core processor or 4GB RAM, that’s steep.

A key piece of hardware missing from the PRIV is a fingerprint reader. BlackBerry doesn’t think fingerprints are a particularly-secure authentication mechanism.

The PRIV can also run quite hot, and when it does I noticed a bit of flex and soft creaking from the non-removable back cover.

It didn’t feel like the phone was coming apart, just that the back cover didn’t feel as solid as the rest of the phone.

Early reviewers also complained that BlackBerry’s software, particularly the Hub, was slow.

While I found many issues with Hub, I didn’t find it to be sluggish.

BlackBerry PRIV

BlackBerry PRIV

Conclusion

In short: if it weren’t for the price, the PRIV would be my next phone.

I can’t help but wonder if BlackBerry had not insisted on developing its own mobile operating system (BlackBerry 10), what might have been.

If BlackBerry had been making Android phones all this time, would hardware keyboards be more prominent today?

Would BBM still be competition with WhatsApp in South Africa?

BlackBerry has said it didn’t feel that Google’s OS could do what it needed from a platform until the release of Android 5.0.

“We really couldn’t do that before then. It wasn’t ready. There were a number of capabilities that would require too much surgery on our part to add the capabilities we needed,” BlackBerry told VentureBeat.

“Lollipop reduced the amount of surgery to a point where we could add our special sauce and let us maintain the product going forward.”

Oh right, the keyboard!

BlackBerry Android software keyboard

BlackBerry Android software keyboard

The keyboard is awesome – both of them.

BlackBerry has ported its software keyboard from BlackBerry 10 to Android, which features a predictive text system that displays words above characters as you type.

You can then swipe up to send the word to the input field. You can also set the keyboard to predict words in up to 3 languages at once.

For the hardware keyboard, BlackBerry borrowed from the Passport.

While I would have preferred a keyboard more like those we saw on the Bold or the Q10, the keyboard on the PRIV is great – and is touch-sensitive.

You swipe back on it to delete a word, or use it as a trackpad to navigate around text you’re editing. It also has predictive text.

The keyboard is divided into thirds, with a word displayed above each section. You can then swipe up on the hardware keyboard underneath the predicted word to send it to the text field.

Together, this makes for the best typing experience you will find on any smartphone.

Review disclaimer: Devices are typically provided to MyBroadband for two weeks. The views are therefore based on short-term usage. We were given the PRIV model STV100-4 to review.

BlackBerry’s first Android smartphone – South African launch date and price

Why BlackBerry lost its cool-factor in South Africa

What the next BlackBerry Android smartphone could look like

BlackBerry rejects snooping proposals

Samsung and BlackBerry make Android smartphones more secure

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